Systemic Challenges in Skill Development

As a tech-entrepreneur working in the skill development space and being focused on making an impact on skills that require working with hands, I often get exposed to the limits technology has in making impact unless the blocks inherent to the system are removed. The government is certainly taking steps in the right direction, with the Prime Minister remarking during the launch of Skill India that he wants to see India being known for its ITIs like it is now known for its IITs.

Two back-to-back articles by journalist @yatishrajawat articulated these system challenges excellently. In an article for FirstPost, he nails the aspirational issues with working with hands:

…skills are not for those who cannot complete education. Skills are for everyone who is seeking a job and is not afraid of working with their hands.

The biggest challenge today is that those who work with their hands do not want their children to do the same. Somehow it has gone into our culture that working with hands is a poorer way to earn a living.

In another article for the BusinessWorld he further elaborates on aspects that the industry needs to urgently address, rather than wait for the government to solve:

One of the biggest issue with skilled workers who work with their hands as compared to the rest of the labour force that taps out their living on a keyboard is working conditions. Companies never think about giving these workers a workplace as the site is there work place. As a result they are expose to he elements, their canteens are in the open, the relieve themselves in makeshift or open toilets. They are not considered equal to an employee who works in the head office. And this shows in the variance in the salary too.

Personally I have seen this happen first hand at many industries.  At a site of one of India’s leading construction companies, the tower crane operators are paid Rs 16,000/month for daily 12 hours shift. One has to vertically climb 50 meters height on a ladder, and there are no loo-breaks. No air-conditioning in the 3′ by 3′ cabin. There is no formal training institute for tower crane operators, and one has to slog for 4 years as informal apprentices before one gets the opportunity to become an operator. This, for a skill that is so critical that if an operator makes a mistake, the accident can kill/injure a lot of people.

When it comes to more niche skills like operating earth preparation / tunneling equipment, the machines cost crores of rupees, and every hour of not operating it turns out to lakhs of rupees of revenue lost to the owner of the machine. Therefore the operators earn about Rs 60,000/- per month. The HR head of a company employing these operators was ruing this – “they earn as much as my project managers”. Well, there’s nothing stopping the project managers from learning to operate these machines and earn similar! Just that the white collared tend to trivialize many of these skills (“what’s there to learn?”).

And if you speak to the workmen, they (mostly rightly) say that the management does not care for them. The community of white collars and the community of blue collars see each other with distrust. Both sides fail to realize that the other side brings a complementary skill that is equally important. We need to bring about a culture of mutual respect, for the skill development scenario to change significantly.

As Yatish sums it up in his BusinessWorld article, “Till corporates treat workers as Karamveer, karmath, assets of the company no skill building initiative will work in the country”. Technology can help only if the mindsets change.